The Return of Wharf Rats


Eromosele Abiodun writes on the alarming rate of pilfering at terminals across the nation’s seaports

Last week, vehicle importer, David Okanlawon discovered that the vehicle he imported into Nigeria and discharged at the Port and Terminal Multiservice Limited (PTML) had most of its components looted inside the terminal.

Speaking to newsmen, Okanlawon claimed that his vehicle – Toyota Camry, that was imported from the United States of America (USA) and discharged at the PTML terminal had all its component looted inside the terminal.

According to him, the vehicle battery, air condition compressor, side mirror, and extra tyres among others were all pilfered within 72 days that the vehicle spent at the terminal.

Okanlawon, who said the vehicle was discharged from MV HOEGH XIAMEN on the 28th March 2020, explained that he was surprised that vehicles could still be pilfered after terminals were concessions to private operators.

He said: “My woes started on 28th of March, 2020 when my vehicle was discharged at PTML terminal. It was the second day the federal government begin enforcement of lock down so, the clearing agent that was supposed to clear the vehicle out of the terminal was unable to access the ports.

“But, after the lock down was relaxed in Lagos and he went to the port to clear the vehicle, an invoice of N353,990 was raised with N269,600 slammed on me as demmurage for the 72 days the vehicles spent in their terminal.”

Okanlawon, who has a car mart in Port Harcourt, said he was surprised that despite paying huge amount on demurrage as charged by the shipping line, his vehicle was still pilfered to that extent.

“I never knew Nigeria seaport has a terrible security architecture like this because vital components in the vehicle were pilfered, the battery, compressor, side mirrors and even some components of the engine were stolen.”

Okanlawon, who showed the before and after picture of the vehicle to journalists, said he was disappointed at the level of pilfering in the terminal.

His claims were corroborated by the Association of Nigerian Liscenced Customs Agents (ANLCA), PTML chapter, that confirmed vehicle pilfering at the terminal.

The Public Relations Officer, PTML chapter of ANLCA, Ayo Sulaiman, said wharf rats have returned to PTML damaging importers vehicles.

According to him, the management of the terminal has always been living in denial about the development.

He said: “The wharf rats that were once defeated at the seaports have returned and we know that a whole container was burgled in Port and Cargo terminal some time ago. But, I know pilfering of vehicles happen mostly at mile 2 annex of the terminal and the chapter have instance of remotes of vehicles missing and they tell us it get lost on transit but, we are collating lists of burgled vehicles to present to the management because this has to stop.”

When contacted, the Public Relations Manager at PTML, Steve Okoh, told THISDAY that Okanlanwon’s vehicle was not pilfered at PTML.

He claimed that things of that nature cannot happen at PTML because of the way the terminal is structured.

According to him, “Out terminal is a moving terminal, vehicles are not kept at one spot. We have CCTV cameras all over the terminal. Car components like side mirror theft used to happen but since security was enhanced it has stopped. We used to have cases of sensor keys missing but importers now hide their keys and are very difficult to find.

“We investigate incidents of that nature if they are reported and ensure that the stevedoring company who employ the staff that discharged the vessel involved pay for any missing item. However, what Okanlawon has complained of did not happen at PTML, he is out to blackmail us.”

Rising incidents of pilfering

It is not just Okanlawon that is complaining. Last year, many importers expressed deep concern over rising incidents pertaining to theft of imported goods during examination and clearance from the Tincan Island ports, which have resulted in severe losses to them.

Some of the importers, who spoke to THISDAY on the issue, said imported goods were constantly being stolen at the Tincan Island ports but the theft has been on the increase in recent times. The urged the authorities to take stringent steps to secure imported consignments in order to save the business community from suffering severe losses.

To stem the menace, the importers suggested that, besides intensifying security arrangements of imported consignments, the federal government should urgently replace dilapidated scanners at the ports across the country, pointing out that importers have continued to lose billions of naira owing to the physical examination of goods by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).

Some clearing agents, who spoke to THISDAY on condition of anonymity, blamed customs officials at the Tincan port for the peculiar rise in theft of imported goods. The agents alleged that the officials open imported sealed items and remove most items, including personal effect in the imported consignment.
The customs, officials of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU) are some of the agencies that carry out examination of imported goods.

In recent months, the theft has been on the rise. Clothing, foot wears, wrist watches, and jewelry are some of the personal effects stolen on a daily bases at the Tincan Island port,” the importers lamented.

When contacted, the Chairman of Tincan Island Chapter of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Mattew Eseota, confirmed that importers have suffered huge losses in recent times.

“I can confirm that we have experienced high cases of loss of personal effect running into billions of naira. However, the matter has been reported to security agents at the port. They are currently working on some cases and have also put plans in place to check the menace, “he said.

Some importers who decried the situation called on the Comptroller General of the NCS, Col Hameed Ali (rtd) to take urgent steps to stem the tide.

However, the Public Relations Officer, Tincan Island Command, Uche Ejesieme, denied the allegation, insisting that customs officers at the port carry out their duties professionally and diligently.

“It may interest you to know that the Customs is not the only agency at the port, neither is it the only agency that participates in examination of cargoes. The service has rules of engagement which guide examination of cargo,” he said.

He claimed that the command has not received any report of such theft from any importer.

“We therefore challenge anybody with a genuine case of such to bring it up as no stone will be left unturned in dealing decisively with such, “he stressed.

Breakdown of Scanners

The President of NCMDLCA, Mr. Lucky Amiwero had recently called on the federal government to constitute a committee to probe the breakdown of scanners at the ports and the need to evaluate them for possible repairs.

In a petition to President MuhammaduBuhari, Amiwero said the present state of the scanning equipment at the ports was a result of total neglect by the NCS personnel who supervised the transfer of the equipment from the providers.

He said the acquisition of the scanners was contracted under the Destination Inspection Scheme between the Federal Government of Nigeria and some service providers. The service providers include: Cotecna, SGS and Global Scan, who were contracted on a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) basis, for a period of seven years from January 1, 2006 to December 31, 2012, which was finally extended for one year by the federal government.

“The agreement for the provision, installation, operation and management of x-ray scanning equipment and software for examination of goods between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Cotecna Inspection Limited, Societe general de surveillance (SGS) and Global ScanSystems Limited is as contained in Articles 4 to 4.3 which provides for ownership of equipment during the duration of the contract and the transfer to federal government,, “he said.

He added: “As draft committee chairman of the Reconstituted Presidential Task Force on the Reform of Nigeria Customs Service (RPTFCR) in 2010 and also member of the Presidential Committee of Destination Inspection (DI), in 1999/2006, I am obligated to advise on the need to critically look at the breakdown scanners in the port for possible repairs.”

Docile Customs Service

Apart from the breakdown of scanners, the docility of officers and men of the NCS has caused a lot of damage at the ports across the country. Last year, Nigeria’s Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, accused officials of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) of not coming to office on time for examination of cargoes thereby frustrating the ease of doing business policy of the federal government.

Speaking at a public lecture on the ease of doing business with the theme: “The Gains and Challenges of the Presidential Order on Ease of Doing Business in the Nigerian Maritime Sector One Year After” organised in Lagos, Osinbajo, had said the Police and Customs had become stumbling blocks to the order.

Osinbajo, who was represented by an official in the Presidential Environmental Business Enabling Council (PEBEC), Mr. John Oboh, agreed that there were challenges in carrying out the presidential order on ease of doing business, identifying some customs operatives and the Police as not helping matters.

He criticised the Customs for incessant interception of goods cleared at the ports, saying it is against international best practices. According to him, there is no reason why operatives of the Customs should be stopping containers on the way, particularly within few meters after the port gate for another round of checks.

Also in late 2017, the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi accused the NCS of frustrating the National Single Window(NSW) project meant to hasten cargo clearance process at the nation’s ports.

The NSW is a platform meant to integrate all agencies involved in the clearance of cargoes at the ports with view to ease the inspection calculation and payment of all import duties, levies and other charges on line.

Amaechi had made the accusation during the inauguration of the Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence System, a marine operation and surveillance centre, at the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) in Lagos.
“Very soon Nigerians will protest against the seaports. People are already importing through Benin republic. Everyone has a single window. Niger who used to import things through Nigeria is doing so through another country. This is because we are charging both official and unofficial charges,” he said.

Lateness to Examination Bays

Late 2018, clearing agents operating at the Apapa Port accused the Apapa Command of the NCS of lateness to examination of cargoes.

The Apapa chapter Chairman of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Emeka Enwelu, said that examination of cargoes at Apapa has gone down from 300 to 200 containers per day due to the officers’ attitude to work.

He said: “Customs officers come for examination around 12p.m-1p.m daily; that is the actual time they come for examination and we have discussed so much on the need for them to come early for examination to know what to be done, and for us to get our cargoes out in good time. Instead, we spend a whole day on examination before coming the next day for release. That is not trade facilitation, except they can start by 10a.m as advised by the government.”
Enwelu further stated that because of the delay experienced, clearing agents find it difficult to examine and release goods the same day. He said that agents are forced to return the following day for the release of their consignments, thereby causing increase in storage charges.

“If customs conducts examination and write the report, we can get our cargoes, but when they start late they find it difficult to write the report because the whole day has already been wasted,”he said.

Another clearing agent, Chijioke Ebuka, however, urged the federal government to ensure that customs adhere strictly to the implementation of the executive order.

He also stated that delay experienced at the examination bays affect the number of cargoes released daily.

He said: “Doing away with delay is part of the vision of PEBEC but the Apapa Customs officers are making the gains disappear. We want officers to come in good time so that goods can be released same day after examination.”

He alleged that customs had written to be exempted from the executive order, stating however, that, “customs cannot be bigger than the country and the law of the land because they are a creation of the law.”

Meanwhile, the Command Public Relations Officer of the command, Nkiru Nwala, refuted the claims, stating that for the avoidance of doubts, the examination bays are not owned by the customs but the terminal operators, just as there are other federal agencies involved in the cargo examination process.

Specifically, she said: “As the custodians of the examination bays, the terminal operators position the cargo for inspection and notifies the customs, which in turn informs other relevant agencies to assemble for examination.

“This has been particularly so since the implementation of the Executive Order on the Ease of Doing Business at the Ports, which empowered customs to coordinate the other examining agencies.”

Nwala explained that there are many terminals in the Apapa Port Complex, wondering how the agents came about the statistics being bandied about that released containers dropped from about 300 to 200 allegedly because customs officials do not arrive early for inspection,” he said.